Home    History index

The Gun - Rifled Ordnance

previous    |    index    |    next

The technique of stabilising a projectile by spinning it in flight is not new; mediaeval cross-bowmen realised that offsetting the wings on their bolts made them spin and improved their accuracy. Archers sometimes treated the feathers on their arrows the same way.

Rifling as we know it was invented between 1450 and 1500. Rifles were in use in Germany and Italy as early as 1520, but for sporting purposes only. They were expensive - too good for 'common soldiers' - so were not issued to troops until over 150 years later, and then only in small numbers to specialised units. Experiments on the rifling of ordnance prior to the 19th century failed to produce an effective system. In his book New Principles of Gunnery (1742), Benjamin Robins (1707-51) emphasised the advantages to be gained by the nation which developed rifled ordnance. He himself carried out experiments but his findings failed to impress.

In 1789 Joseph Manton (1760-1835), a maker of sporting guns, began to experiment with the rifling of ordnance, and invented a machine for that purpose. The following year the Master General of the Ordnance authorised the issue to him of a SBML 6-pr for preliminary testing. During the course of his experiments he rifled several guns with varying degrees of twist and depth of groove, firing many rounds in shot-for-shot comparison with service smooth-bores. He also invented a wooden cup or 'bottom' for attaching to roundshot, designed to expand when the gun fired, take up windage, and engage the rifling.

Manton Misses Out

Unfortunately, neither Manton nor any Board of Ordnance member seemed aware of the advantages inherent in the use of cylindrical projectiles. Good as the rifling was it could do little to improve the ballistics of spherical shot. Thus the rifled guns performed but marginally better than the smooth-bore, which led the Board to conclude that any advantage lay not so much in the rifling as in Manton's cups. They therefore decided to accept the cups for general use but to discontinue tests on rifled ordnance.

In 1792 Manton and the Board wrangled over payment for the cups which by this time Manton had patented. The Board offered him one farthing (¼ cent) royalty for each cup manufactured, but Manton wanted a lump sum of £30000 ($60000) which the Board refused. No further action was taken over the cups even though adopting them would have improved the performance of all SB equipments.

In 1821 Lieutenant Croly of the 1st Regiment, British Army, proposed a rifled breech-loading (RBL) gun firing a lead-covered projectile, but he made no progress.

Queen of the Battlefield

Gunners in other countries, notably France, Germany and Russia, began experimenting. Cavalli of Sardinia (1845) and Wahrendorf of Sweden (1846) advocated RBL equipments, Wahrendorf's being an improvement on Croly's. However, none of them succeeded with their ideas.

Of course Gunners the world over could afford to be complacent; field artillery fought chiefly against infantry whose common muskets had an effective range of 200 yards - according to the optimists - but which in reality was no more than 80. They were not even fitted with sights!

On the other hand the effective range of field guns was 800 - 1000. Thus the artillery was 'Queen of the Battlefield' as the saying went. Gunners were no more impressed with riflemen than they were with musketeers; early service rifles fired over-sized balls which had to be forced down the bore by hitting the hammer with a mallet to make them 'take' the rifling! Not only did this make the rate of fire extremely slow, but it distorted the balls, badly affecting their accuracy.

The full story of the development of the military rifle is beyond the scope of this paper, but it needs to be briefly addressed, first because it shows how hard it was to get new ideas accepted in those days, and secondly because it eventually obliged Gunners of all nations to switch from smooth-bore to rifled ordnance - as Robins had urged in 1742.

Baker and Norton

The British Baker rifle introduced in 1800 was sighted to 300 yards but was not considered effective over 200 unless handled by a skilled marksman. In 1838 it was superseded by the Brunswick, a copy of the rifle then issued to the Hanoverian Army, a somewhat better weapon. Rifles of other nations were of similar effectiveness. At 400 metres from the enemy, Gunners felt safe.

Riflemen had long realised that a cylindrical bullet would perform more efficiently in a rifle than a ball of like weight. They made many experiments to find one which could be easily loaded without distorting it by ramming, as occurred with both the Baker and the Brunswick, and which would expand on firing to be rotated by the rifling. Some of their attempts are worth mentioning.

In 1823 Captain John Norton of the 34th Regiment provided the obvious solution. He took a cylindro-conoidal bullet slightly smaller in diameter than the bore down which it could be easily slid for loading, then hollowed out the base so it would expand into the rifling on firing. But the Board of Ordnance, having found it worked perfectly, rejected it on the grounds that spherical missiles were the only types acceptable for military purposes. And most members of the Board were Gunners!

Norton's bullet
Norton's bullet

The real reason for the rejection was that in the services 'progress' was a rude word. Officers lived in an atmosphere of hidebound tradition an unreasoning resistance to change, rank and file existed in one of apathy, fear and ignorance.

Greener and Minié

In 1836 William Greener, a celebrated gunsmith, proposed a similar hollow-based bullet fitted with a conical wooden cup designed to be driven into the base cavity by propellant gas mixture, thus expanding it into the rifling, but the Board rejected this also, because it was of a composite nature, ie in two bits, therefore too difficult to manufacture!

Greener's bullet
Greener's bullet

Another twelve years slipped by. Then in 1848 the Prussians made their Dreyse 'needle gun' a general issue to all troops. A bolt-action breech-loading rifle sighted to 600 metres, it proved vastly superior to any other service small arm.

In the same year Captain Claude-Etienne Minié of the French Army produced a bullet virtually the same as Greener's (some say he copied it) - and the Board of Ordnance accepted it! Needless to say Greener was not amused; he took legal action , and the Board was obliged to pay him £1000 ($2000) compensation.

Minié's bullet
Minié's bullet

Britain soon commenced the manufacture of the Minié rifle, issue of which began in 1851. Calibre was 0.702-inch - so it could fire the old musket balls in an emergency. It was sighted to 1000 yards but could kill at 1400.

Those in the field of artillery found themselves outranged. No more would there be tales of gallant troop commanders galloping into action '... to within half-musket shot...' of the enemy, dropping their trails and opening up with case! In Britain the Board of Ordnance at last woke up and let it be known they were prepared to evaluate any pieces of rifled ordnance inventors might offer.

Inventors Come Forward

A number of inventors offered guns of different construction incorporating rifling of widely differing designs of which only three were eventually considered worthy of serious trial. They were pieces by Messrs Charles Lancaster (1820-78), William Armstrong (1810-1900) and Joseph Whitworth (1803-87). Projectiles and methods of rotation were many and varied. Most guns were of cast iron, soon to be proved unsuitable for rifled ordnance.

A selection of possible bores
Showing sections of the bores of various guns submitted for the Board's consideration.

The first to be tried was one by Lancaster, a well-known maker of sporting guns, who in 1850 patented a system of rifling having a smooth bore of oval or elliptical section with a twist increasing from breech to muzzle. Of the eight service cast iron 68-pr SBML siege guns rifled on Lancaster's principle sent to Sebastopol during the Crimean War (1854-56), three burst. A number of new guns specially produced and rifled in the same way at considerable expense also burst in trials at Shoeburyness in England. Apparently the oval projectiles could not accommodate themselves to the increasing twist of the rifling, jammed in the bore, and blew the muzzles off. Modifications to both bores and projectiles were made but none proved successful.

An interesting experiment followed the bursting of one of the 68-prs at Sebastopol; artificers were directed to trim the jagged muzzle end with a hammer and cold chisel, after which the gun continued to be used as a howitzer. Records indicate it performed quite well in this role!

Although Lancaster's system was not adopted for ordnance it proved successful in small arms. Carbines with his rifling were later issued to the Royal Engineers and were said to have performed satisfactorily.


WL Ruffell, 1997
Return to top

previous    |    index    |    next   |    History index    |    Home